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Types of complementary and alternative therapies

Explains the different types of complementary and alternative therapies, what they're used for and possible side effects.

On this page you'll find information about:

If you want to learn about a therapy that isn't listed here, ask your doctor if they have any information on that particular type of therapy and if it might be right for you.

A lot of the research that has been done on these therapies suggests they are most effective when used alongside other treatments, rather than being enough on their own. Do not stop taking any medication or other treatment you have been prescribed without talking to your GP or healthcare professional first.

Safety information

Most complementary and alternative therapies are considered safe when done by a trained and experienced practitioner. However, there may be times that that a certain therapy carries higher risks for you.

For more on safety see our information on are they safe, when a herbal remedy might be unsuitable for you and things to consider before staring a therapy.

Some treatments may impact your fitness to drive. Speak to your GP or pharmacist about this if you're worried.

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan)

What is it? 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is something our bodies naturally produce to help them form serotonin (a brain chemical involved in our mood). 5-HTP can also be taken as a supplement you can buy in health food shops and some pharmacies.

What is it used for? Depression and sometimes anxiety.

Are there side effects and is it safe? The most common side effects are nausea, vomiting and headaches. However, taking too much 5-HTP or taking it with antidepressants can cause serotonin syndrome. If you have bipolar disorder 5-HTP may also cause mania or hypomania.

Does it work? Studies have shown that 5-HTP can work as well as antidepressants for some people. Some people may also feel the positive effects faster than with other antidepressants. However, more research needs to be done into the long term use of 5-HTP and not everyone finds it helpful. You should always speak to your GP or pharmacist before considering taking 5-HTP.

L-tryptophan

5-HTP is made in our bodies from the amino acid tryptophan. We can get tryptophan from the food we eat. L-Tryptophan is also available as a tablet that some people use for depression.

However, L-Tryptophan has been linked to a very serious health condition called Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). EMS causes fatigue, muscle weakness and pain, skin changes and breathing problems. It can be fatal in some cases.

L-Tryptophan is still available in the UK, but only with a prescription. There have been no reports of people getting EMS when taking 5-HTP, but more research needs to be done.

Acupuncture

What is it? Acupuncture involves inserting very fine needles into specific parts of your body. This is believed to stimulate nerves and muscles which may release natural pain-relieving chemicals. It is practiced in both Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

What is it used for? Depression, anxiety and sleep. Acupuncture is often used to relieve chronic pain, which might be contributing to anxiety, sleep problems or low mood.

Are there side effects and is it safe? Sometimes people experience pain, bleeding or bruising where the needles puncture the skin. You should speak to your doctor before getting acupuncture if you are taking medication or have a health problem that impacts blood clotting, or if you have an allergy to certain metals. Acupuncture should be done by a professional, such as a doctor or registered practitioner.

Does it work? It is not clear whether acupuncture is helpful for mental health problems on their own, but some people find it useful in managing symptoms or as part of self-care. Acupuncture is a recommended by the NHS for migraines and chronic pain, and some people with chronic pain find that acupuncture helps with their mental health.

Where can I find out more?

Alternative medical systems

What are they? There are some traditional treatments that take a different approach to healthcare than that taken by the NHS. These approaches include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic Medicine, Siddha Medicine and Unani Medicine.

In some countries, these approaches are part of mainstream medical care. They often have different ideas to those found in UK healthcare about the causes of mental health problems, how to identify them and how to treat them. The treatments include other complementary and alternative therapies, such as herbal remedies, massage and acupuncture.

What are they used for? Alternative medical systems are used to treat a range of mental health problems.

Are there side effects and are they safe? These approaches involve a wide range of practices and treatments, which will have different side effects, and there can be risks in some treatments. You should speak to your practitioner or GP about these before deciding to have any treatment.

Do they work? Treatments in alternative medical systems have different amounts of evidence behind them. A lot of research on these practices is done in other countries and there is not always a good understanding of the theories behind them in the UK. However, some people find these approaches helpful, particularly if they are from a country where these practices are more common.

If your mental health problem is not getting better or is getting worse after using these treatments, it is important to speak to your doctor.

Where can I find out more?

Aromatherapy

What is it? Aromatherapy uses essential oils (oils extracted from plants) for healing. It can also be combined with other treatments, such as massage therapy. Some people use essential oils themselves, or products with essential oils such as candles.

What is it used for? Different essential oils are thought to be useful for different experiences. For example, lavender oil is commonly used for relaxation and sleep. Other oils may be helpful for different experiences.

Are there side effects and is it safe? It is possible to experience allergies or reactions to the oils, so you should speak to the aromatherapist beforehand if you have concerns.

Does it work? Many people find aromatherapy helpful as part of a self-care routine or for managing symptoms alongside other treatments. It is unlikely to be able to treat a mental health problem on its own.

Where can I find out more?

“I like calming essential oils like lavender dotted about on soft furnishings and clothes.”

Cannabis-based medicines

What are they? Cannabis-based medicines cover a wide range of substances, including medical cannabis and cannabidiol oil (CBD oil).

Medical cannabis must be prescribed by a qualified healthcare professional. It is only prescribed for certain conditions, mainly for people recovering from chemotherapy, some types of epilepsy, and chronic pain.

CBD oil, on the other hand, is available to buy legally from health food shops and pharmacies. It does not contain large amounts of THC (the part of cannabis that makes you ‘high’). However, most CBD oils will contain a small amount of THC, and different brands will include different amounts.

What are they used for? Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Are there side effects and are they safe? Medical cannabis can cause behaviour changes and hallucinations, while CBD oil may cause fatigue and changes in appetite. Neither of these are recommended for those of us who experience psychosis or have schizophrenia, because THC can make symptoms worse. Possession of non-medical cannabis is illegal in the UK.

Do they work? There is evidence to support that CBD oil and medical cannabis can be helpful for anxiety, but there is still a lot we don't know about how it works. CBD products are all made differently, which means they might not all work for you. It's currently unlikely that you'll be able to get a prescription for medical cannabis for anxiety, unless no other treatments have worked.

Where can I find out more?

Herbal remedies

Herbal remedies are substances that come from plants, which are used as a way of treating and preventing different health problems.

See our guide to herbal remedies for detailed information on these.

“I enjoy chamomile tea. I tend to drink it when stressed, anxious, or wanting to try wind down and relax. I do find it helps, because hot drinks are soothing. I really like the smell too, which feels comfy and helps me sleep.”

Homeopathy

What is it? Homeopathy involves using extremely diluted (watered down) natural substances to treat physical and mental health problems. Homeopaths believe that the more a substance is diluted, the more effective it will be.

What is it used for? Some people find that trying homeopathic remedies for stress, anxiety and depression does make them feel better.

Are there side effects and is it safe? There are no major side effects associated with homeopathy, however there is a risk that if you chose this as your main or only treatment, your mental health problem might get worse. Some ingredients used in homeopathy can also interact with other medications.

Does it work? There has been a lot of research into homeopathy and there is no evidence to suggest that homeopathy can treat any health conditions. Some people find that they feel better while having homeopathy, but there is no evidence that homeopathy was the cause of this improvement.

The NHS no longer provides any homeopathic services because of this. If you are considering homeopathy, it is recommended that you also consider other treatments, as it is very unlikely to work on its own.

Where can I find out more?

Hypnotherapy

What is it? Hypnotherapy involves being put in a deeply relaxed state by a hypnotherapist. There are different types of hypnotherapy and different ways to be hypnotised. You should always be in full control under hypnosis, and your therapist should only use methods that you've agreed on and feel comfortable with.

What is it used for? Many people find it useful in managing symptoms of anxiety, phobias, stress, anger, addictions, and compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some people find it helpful for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it is important that this is supported by a qualified professional and potentially alongside other treatments, otherwise it can make your symptoms worse.

Are there side effects and is it safe? Hypnotherapy might not be suitable for you if you have a diagnosis of personality disorder or psychosis (it may make your symptoms worse), or if you are due to be a witness at a trial.

Does it work? Hypnotherapists use hypnosis to help you change unwanted thoughts and behaviours. They do this by using suggestion and by supporting you to increase your self-awareness. It can be helpful for helping change behaviour, but not everyone feels comfortable being hypnotised, or finds that it works for them.

Where can I find out more?

Light therapy

Light therapy uses a strong light to simulate sunlight and lift mood. For information on light therapy see our page on treatments for seasonal affective disorder.

As well as being used for seasonal affective disorder, some evidence suggests it might also be helpful for depression and depressive episodes in bipolar disorder that happen during times of less sunlight.

“Using a light box wasn't perfect but the change was tangible. A real shift. I began to cope better with the dark days and didn't have the all-encompassing desire to get back into bed and stay there.”

Massage

What is it? Massage involves working on the soft tissue of your body to help with relaxation, wellbeing and physical pain. There are lots of different types of massage therapy, such as Shiatsu, Indian head massage, sports massage and aromatherapy massage.

What is it used for? Massage is often used as a wellbeing or self-care practice, as well as for pain or muscle injuries. Some people also find massage helpful when their mental health problem is causing muscle tension, which can happen in anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Are there side effects and is it safe? Massage is generally a safe practice, but if you have an injury you should speak to your massage therapist beforehand.

Does it work? There is not much research on massage and mental health problems, but many people find it helpful in managing their wellbeing or as part of a self-care routine.

Where can I find out more?

“I like to unwind by turning everything off, closing my eyes and trying to focus on my breathing. Slowly removing the negative energy and thoughts from my day.”

Meditation

What is it? There are different types of mediation, but all aim to quieten your mind and put you into a state of calm, stillness and rest. Some types of meditation may involve mindfulness or a spiritual element. There are many DVDs, apps, and free online videos that can teach you meditation exercises.

What is it used for? Wellbeing, depression, anxiety and stress.

Are there side effects and is it safe? Meditation is generally safe, however if you experience dissociation meditation might make your symptoms worse.

Does it work? There are mixed results in the research about meditation for mental health problems, but many people find it a helpful way of managing feelings of stress and anxiety. Many people also use it alongside other treatments as a way of managing their mental health and wellbeing more generally.

Where can I find out more?

“Meditation, exercise and yoga have all been helpful ways to regulate mood and reduce anxiety.”

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a meditation technique you can learn which involves noticing what's happening in the present moment, without judgement. It aims to help you improve self-awareness and cope better with difficult thoughts and feelings.

See our mindfulness pages for detailed information.

female smiling with trees behind her

How a mindfulness retreat helped me

“When I practised deep relaxation, sending love to my body parts, one at a time, I did eventually fall asleep.”

Reflexology

What is it? Reflexology is based on the idea that different points on your feet, hands, face and ears are linked to other parts of your body through your nervous system. During a typical session, a reflexologist will use their hands to apply gentle pressure to these points.

What is it used for? Sleep, anxiety and depression.

Are there side effects and is it safe? Reflexology is generally safe and there are no serious side effects.

Does it work? Most mental health studies on reflexology are done on people that are also experiencing a long-term or chronic illness, such as cancer, or who are a carer. Reflexology has been found to be effective in managing sleep, anxiety and depression in these studies, however not everyone finds that it works well for them.

Where can I find out more?

“I really like reflexology. It helped calm me when I was in a mixed state.”

Reiki

What is it? Reiki is a Japanese technique that involves practitioners rebalancing ‘energy flow’ over your body. Practitioners will either place their hands lightly on you or hover them above your body throughout the treatment.

What is it used for? Reiki is used for depression, anxiety and other problems associated with chronic pain or illness.

Are there side effects and is it safe? There are no significant side effects associated with reiki.

Does it work? Some people find reiki a very relaxing treatment that helps with their mood. There are not many large research studies on reiki for mental health, but some studies suggest it can be helpful for people who have anxiety as a result of chronic pain.

Where can I find out more?

SAMe (S-Adenosyl-Methionine)

What is it? SAMe is a chemical found naturally in the body that helps with serotonin, melatonin and dopamine levels, the brain chemicals that help with our mood. It is also known as ademetionine. You can take it as a tablet.

What is it used for? Depression and anxiety.

Are there side effects and is it safe? The most common side effects are stomach problems, insomnia, sweating, a dry mouth and dizziness. SAMe may interact with other medicines or dietary supplements. It may also worsen symptoms of mania in those of us with bipolar disorder.

Does it work? SAMe has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants at treating depression in the short term, and many people say they feel it works faster than other antidepressants. Some people prefer SAMe to antidepressants because it has less side effects, but the long-term effects of SAMe are not well known and it does not work for everyone.

Where can I find out more?

Spiritual and religious healing

What is it? Spiritual and religious healing refers to a wide range of practices that use faith or religious connection to treat a health condition. It can involve rituals, prayers, and religious or spiritual objects. It can also involve other complementary and alternative therapies, such as meditation and yoga.

What is it used for? Spiritual and religious healing is used in different ways by different people and groups. Some feel it is a good form of general wellbeing support and self-care, while others might feel it can help to cure a health problem.

Are there side effects and is it safe? If the person leading the religious or spiritual healing practice has a good understanding of mental health problems and you are using it alongside other treatments, it can be a helpful experience.

However, some research suggests that spiritual and religious healing can make you feel worse, if you are using it instead of other treatments that might work better for you. This is especially the case if you've experienced religious-based trauma, or if you have schizophrenia or psychosis.

Does it work? While there is not much evidence to support how spiritual and religious healing works, many people find that faith or spirituality can be an important part of supporting their wellbeing.

Where can I find out more?

“My way of coping is by praying, meditation and sound healing.”

St John's wort

St John's wort is a herbal remedy. It is used to treat mild and moderate depression.

For detailed information see our page on St John's wort.

“When I could no longer take SSRI's due to side effects, I tried St John's wort as an alternative. It 's definitely helped with my depression and my mood has lifted quite a lot.”

Tai chi

What is it? Tai chi (also called tai chi chuan) is a Chinese practice that uses deep breathing and relaxation with flowing movements to help with balance, movement and wellbeing. It is particularly useful for older adults or those of us with mobility restrictions, as it is very accessible for a range of movement levels.

What is it used for? Tai chi is often used as part of a general wellbeing practice, and some use it to help with stress and low mood.

Are there side effects and is it safe? Tai chi is a generally safe practice and has no significant side effects. You may need to take precautions however if you are pregnant, have a hernia, back pain or osteoporosis.

Does it work? Tai chi has been shown to be beneficial for low mood and general wellbeing, as well as helping with physical conditions that may be contributing to your mental health problem.

Where can I find out more?

Vitamin and mineral supplements

What are they? Vitamins and minerals are essential for our health and wellbeing. You can get most essential vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet, but some of us take supplements if we have a deficiency or think it might help with a particular health problem.

What are they used for? Vitamins and minerals play an important role in our general health. Some mental health problems can be caused be a deficiency in vitamins and minerals, and taking supplements or increasing how many nutrients we get in our diet can help. There is also good evidence to suggest that taking omega-3 fatty acids alongside mood stabilisers can help if you're experiencing depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder.

Are there side effects and are they safe? The vitamins and minerals you get in supplements can be found naturally in foods, and that is normally the best way to take them. Having too many supplements can be harmful to your health. If you are considering taking supplements, speak to a pharmacist or GP.

Do they work? Unless your mental health problem is caused by a vitamin or mineral deficiency, they are unlikely to be enough on their own to help your mental health problem. However, making sure you are getting your essential vitamins and minerals daily can improve your wellbeing and general health. Research also supports taking vitamin D during the winter if you live in the UK, and taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements to help with depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder.

Where can I find out more?

“I have found that vitamin D, regular exercise, healthy eating and a heated blanket helps with both mental and sleep issues.”

Weighted blankets

What are they? Weighted blankets are blankets that are lined or made with heavy materials, such as metal. They are used to apply deep pressure to the person wearing it. You can also get weighted clothing, such as jackets.

What are they used for? Weighted blankets are commonly used to relieve anxiety. Some people find the pressure from the blankets to have a calming effect. For those of us with autism spectrum disorder, weighted blankets and clothing have been used as part of deep pressure therapy for a long time.

Are there side effects and are they safe? Weighted blankets are safe and there are no significant side effects. You may find them uncomfortable if you do not like physical touch or experience claustrophobia.

Do they work? Studies on weighted blankets for anxiety are relatively new, but they are positive. Many people find them helpful in managing their anxiety symptoms or panic attacks.

“I’ve used a weighted blanket when I’m struggling with anxiety and it does really help. I think it tricks your mind into thinking someone is hugging you. Like you’re being taken care of.”

Yoga

What is it? Yoga involves spiritual and physical practices designed to increase self-awareness. These include posture work, breathing exercises, meditation, sounds and visualisation. There are many different types of yoga that suit a range of fitness levels.

What is it used for? Many people use yoga as part of general self-care, but it can also be effective for anxiety, stress and depression.

Are there side effects and is it safe? Yoga is generally safe, with limited side effects when done correctly. It's a good idea to do at least a few classes with a professional instructor (in a group or individually) before trying it by yourself, because doing the poses incorrectly can potentially cause injuries. But once you feel safe and confident, there are many books, DVDs and free online resources available to guide you if you want to do yoga on your own.

Does it work? Research shows that many people find yoga beneficial to their mental health. In particular, it can be very effective in managing symptoms of anxiety and depression when practised regularly and alongside other treatments. However, some people with severe depression do not find it effective.

Where can I find out more?

“I find yoga very beneficial especially when slow moving as I feel more connection.”

This information was published in January 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

References and bibliography available on request.

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